Friday, August 10, 2018

Wright State Days

My time at Wright State University (WSU) spanned six years, the first three being your normal full-time course load and working part-time jobs, and then three years working full-time for their administrative computer center and fitting in my senior-level courses. Both my student and professional time at WSU were full of learning that seemed endless, much different than the limited and directed nature of high school. Below are some of the memories that stand out from those days and reflect my lifelong lack of fear at jumping into whatever seemed interesting and fun. Much of this is related to mainframe technology, so while the terminology may be totally foreign, I hope you find it reflective of my favorite double-negative saying, “The best thing I never learned was that I couldn’t do something”.

GOTHIC was a mainframe assembler program that read a single input card and printed out, sideways, each character using multiple lines of asterisks, creating large letters in a Gothic-looking font. Since the mainframe printers used continuous forms, GOTHIC was perfect for creating large fancy banners, many feet long, announcing birthdays or other special occasions. But GOTHIC was written for a DOS (Disk Operating System) mainframe, not the MVT (Multiprogramming with a Variable number of Tasks) version we used at Wright State, so it would need some modification to work, which I decided I would try, even though I didn’t have a clue what assembler language was, that class still a couple years away. Undeterred, I slowly came to understand that most of assembler language was a one-to-one mapping to the actual instructions that mainframes execute, for example, that an AR (Add Register) adds the contents of one of sixteen registers, essentially a really, really fast place to store a number, to another register. That was good news, as all those instructions did not need to change. The other piece to GOTHIC was something I learned were called “macros”, and those were different between DOS and MVT. One by one I swapped one macro, for example, a DOS DTF (Define The File) to its MVT equivalent, a DCB (Data Control Block). The program changed, I received some help with the JCL (Job Control Language) need to compile, link and execute GOTHIC and submitted it. A bit later I was asked to come back to the office of John Sloan, since then a great friend and one-time townhouse mate, where I was told my program crashed MVT because I had not “saved my return registers properly”, which at the time I had no clue what that meant, but it was the one last difference between DOS and MVT. However, I was pretty sure that a mainframe should not crash because of a simple student error. All ended well, GOTHIC was converted and was a big hit for years to come. And it got my name known within the administrative computer center, which opened more doors in the months and years to come.

The last quarter of my freshman year included learning the COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) programming language. To stretch the mainframe’s limited resources, the class used WATBOL (WATerloo CoBOL), a teaching compiler developed by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. All proceeded well until the last assignment of the quarter and I couldn’t get my program to run without issuing an error and stopping. I checked the code over and over and tried a number of ways to figure out the source of the problem until I stumbled upon an unlikely “fix”. Adding a simple “PRINT” statement at a certain point in the program, for some unknown reason, bypassed the error. But this statement also meant my output didn’t look right. I was sure the problem was with WATBOL and not my program, and with my professor’s permission and support, I converted my program to COBOL, figured out how to create real MVT datasets, and copy WATBOL’s file data to the needed input files. I spent the first week of my summer break in a mad rush to complete this transition and was rewarded when my program, now running in a real COBOL environment, worked perfectly and I was able to turn in that final assignment and rest assured that my diagnosis of a WATBOL error was correct. It was a great lesson to learn early in my career that, even widely used programs like WATBOL can contain bugs and that nobody is perfect.

But perhaps my biggest accomplish of all was writing the new, online Admissions system for the university. I had spent a year or so as a student employed as a maintenance programmer for the administrative computer center when the decision was made to have an online program developed to enter the data needed for an applicant to be considered for admission to Wright State. I jumped at the chance given me to write such a new and visible system, and spent countless hours learning how to write IMS (Information Management System) DB (Database) and DC (Data Communications) programs, dividing it into four separate programs to fit into the available computer memory, adding features, security and working out the bugs. In the end, these four programs totalled about 40,000 lines of COBOL code and were used for many years to admit students. Not too shabby for a 21-year-old puppy in the I.T. profession. 

As I was writing the new Admissions system I learned the tedious process of creating BMS (Basic Mapping Support) maps, a set of statements that described where titles, labels, input fields and their attributes would display on a IBM 3270 terminal and map it back to the format used by an online program. This was very much a repetitive, trial-and-error process of preparing a card deck, assembling it and testing it out on a terminal until it was perfect. I decided to write an online program that would allow a programmer to type everything needed, starting from a blank terminal screen, and let the program create the BMS statements, essentially reversing the existing process, making it visual and much less iterative. IBM expressed interest in acquiring it, as nothing at the time was on the market that generated maps like my program. They ultimately decided not to, but it was pretty exciting to create something brand new and have the dominant technology company of the time even consider it.

My friend Jim Nicholas hired me as his assistant systems programmer in late 1977, an opportunity I jumped at as few people were able to break into this advanced technical field as a senior in college. While working full-time stretched my final academic year into three calendar years, I learned at the hand of one of the very best mainframe guys to walk the planet. Jim moved on to The Mead Corporation in 1979 and I stepped into the large shoes he left behind, hoping I was not too outmatched for the job. The big project I had to accomplish was converting our SVS (Single Virtual Storage) mainframe operating system to MVS (Multiple Virtual Storages). I had worked with Jim when we converted from MVT to SVS, but now it was all up to me to use SMP (System Modification Program) to install and configure MVS, apply all the needed PTFs (Program Temporary Fixes), update HASP (Houston Automatic Spooling Priority) to JES2 (Job Entry Subsystem 2) and make updates to the existing system modifications. The amount of change was staggering, but thanks to learning from the best, the conversion was a success. 

Back in these old days, data was inputted to mainframes via punch cards, each of which consisted of eighty columns containing a code for each character. But as IBM 3270 terminals became common in our offices, it made sense to input the data directly to the mainframe and bypass the cards. I worked with one of the ladies who keypunched cards all day, leveraging my assembler language classes and my desire to learn VTAM (Virtual Telecommunications Access Method), IBM’s newest way to communicate to the mainframe from terminals, RJE (Remote Job Entry) stations and other devices. It was a fun little project, nothing as crazy as GOTHIC, WATBOL or the other stories, and I thought nothing more would come of it. But during my job interview at Mead, one of the projects they needed someone to take on was adding VTAM support to their homegrown, online Fast Response system and were surprised, and maybe a bit unbelieving, that I had already built a similar interface as a student. But rattling off how I had used VTAM’s OPNDST and CLSDST macros and lots of other details left little doubt I had gained this obscure skill at a young age. It wouldn’t be the last time that I would learn something because it seemed like fun which later turned out to be useful on some other project. Funny how that works out that way.

Wright State not only provided me with a top-notch Computer Science education, it afforded me the support and resources needed to learn beyond the curriculum, provided my first full-time job and many opportunities and experiences that let me advance my career at an accelerated rate. I’ll be forever grateful for the beginning they gave me.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Emotional Speed

I think everyone is fascinated with speed. Not the raw form of speed that gets measured in miles per hour, but its emotional side that is measured in memories. Case in point, you are currently moving at a very high rate of speed. Each day the earth completes one turn on its axis, and while it varies slightly depending on your latitude, you’re moving about 1,000 mph. That’s almost nothing compared to the yearly flight of the earth around the sun, which clocks you in at about 67,000 mph. And that’s dwarfed by our entire solar system spinning around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at nearly 500,000 mph. None of that matters because you can’t feel it or be thrilled or terrified by it. So the following three stories, from my personal vault of stupid, will not amaze you with gaudy numbers, but hopefully displays speed’s emotionally scary side.

The Skiing Story

Beaches, golf courses and ski slopes are, to me, the most beautiful places in the world.
I’m not a great skier, maybe not even mediocre, but I love the view from the top of a mountain on a clear sunny day. I learned to ski, like all sports, by trial and error, more a fan of figuring it out than have someone teach me how. I struggled more with skiing than the others, and spent years muscling down slopes on the strength of my legs. A typical day was 5-6 runs down the mountain, taking frequent breaks, and then a day off in between ski days to rest sore thighs. Then one day I watched an older gentlemen effortlessly glide down a double-black-diamond run as I ascended a ski lift and it struck me that I was simply trying too hard. I decided to stop making my skiing a weight-lifting exercise and shift to a dancing metaphor, positioning my frame to maximize leverage as I carved down the mountain. Almost instantly I was transformed into making a few dozen trips down the mountain each day, with just a break now and then to enjoy nature’s beauty, and skiing every day. No sore legs or burning lungs. It was a glorious moment when I finally “figured it out”.

The upside of being a much better skier was I could go much faster than before. The downside of being a much better skier was I could go much faster than before, and of course who wouldn’t want to push fast a bit farther at some point? My point occurred at The Canyons in Utah, on a perfectly groomed, very wide, dark blue run with no bumps or curves. I went to the center of the run and got some speed going, but not thinking about anything other than enjoying the ride. But at some point I tucked myself into the skier’s position with my thighs parallel to the ground, hands tucked, poles pointing straight behind and sought to reduce as much air drag as possible. Speed was the reward. Faster I went and my focus intensified with the velocity. Then my skis began to vibrate and chatter, an experience I had never felt before and I knew I was going where I had never been. I can only guess I was going between forty and fifty miles per hour, not fast compared to professional skiers, but the actual number wasn’t important, only the feeling of raw speed. Giddy, a bit of fear began to make itself present, as I had never fallen at this rate of speed (of course), nor had I tried to slow down from this point (of course). My normal couple of cuts, always to the left first, followed by a sharp right, that would bring me to a dead stop delivering a shower of snow, wasn’t going to be possible. My first action was to carefully come up out of my tuck, letting the increasing air drag begin to reduce my velocity, but not knock me backwards. Skis still vibrating I attempted a very small right, my more confident turn, the fear of a high-speed tumble lasting hundreds of yards staring me in the face. But my balance was still there, so a small left turn was next, followed by several more, back and forth. Successful, but I wasn’t slowing down. I needed sharper turns and I needed them now, for no slope goes on forever. Falling was a far better outcome than would greet me if I ran out of slope, with trees or worse somewhere ahead. Placing more weight on my skis during the cuts, I carved wider curves, back and forth, over and over, and my speed began to return to a comfortable range. A few harder cuts and I was in complete control again, giddy over the memory of speed and overcoming the fear and most of all, happy to still be in one unbroken piece. A great memory, but an experience I’ll never repeat, as I think I burned a great deal of luck that day, and I’m not getting any younger.

The Motorcycle Story

The first motorcycle I rode was a Yamaha 400 2-cycle a friend owned. I learned at that first experience that motorcycles possess incredible acceleration which can throw you backwards in an instant. I also learned that when you’re thrown backwards, with your right hand firmly on the throttle, it twists the handle to make you go even faster, with your only resort to hold on even tighter with your left hand and let the throttle slip back to idle with your right. But I survived that introduction undeterred, and bought myself a Yamaha 400 4-cycle. I rode super careful, always anticipating a car not seeing me and getting ready for the worst, which saved me on more than one occasion. The thrill of a motorcycle’s acceleration, the wind rushing over my skin, leaning into curves on country roads and the sense of freedom are uncomparable. I rode to college, rode to family reunions, Indian Lake and Cincinnati, although interstate riding on this small of motorcycle is not really that much fun. I gave up riding after my daughter was born, realizing I was putting too much risk into my new reality.

During a ride one day on Frederick Pike I just needed to find out my Yamaha’s top speed and that stretch of road was the right place to gun it. I came out of a curve to a long stretch of perfectly straight road, no other vehicles in sight. I crouched down, head behind the fairing to reduce drag, and opened up the throttle. The Yahama shot forward faster and faster until it had nothing more to give. I just knew I had never gone this fast in any vehicle before and it was getting scary as the motorcycle vibrated and the scenery clipped by. A quick glance to the speedometer revealed 100 miles per hour, but my heart was beating even faster. Time to back it down and I promised myself never, ever again, a promise I most certainly have kept.

The Great Leap Story

I grew up at a swimming pool, which in Dayton, Ohio means Memorial Day through Labor Day, with my mother bringing her five children, most every weekday, to the Trotwood Aquatic Club. I’m sure Mom enjoyed the relative peace and quiet as we wore ourselves out swimming and splashing for hours, only occasionally indulging our begging for money to buy an ice cream cone or hot dog at the snack stand. I would see how far I could swim before tiring and challenged myself to swim underwater across the width of the pool, which was pretty wide, thrilled each time I made it. But as I grew towards my teen years, the diving area became my focus, with its pair of five foot, and single fifteen foot, springboards. I always dove head first, not a fan of jumping and having water rush up my nose. Diving was a bit hard on the top of my head at impact from the high board, but it allowed me go all the way to the bottom of the pool, pivot, place my feet on the bottom and push as hard as possible to return to the surface. There’s no better way to grow up than at a pool. I content myself now with jumping into ocean waves, my favorite being Daytona Beach, and the occasional snorkel in the warm waters of the Caribbean or Hawai’i. But mostly I enjoy frosty rum drinks and absorbing the sun’s rays around a pool.

Back in my college days I found myself at Glen Helen where there is a waterfall overlooking a small natural pool. The friends I was with encouraged me to join in the great fun in jumping off the ledge of the waterfall into the water below, which I’m pretty sure was illegal, and now entirely sure was just stupid. And, of course, there were girls involved, which is a sure way to get any guy to do stupid things. But I was sure, given my aquatic history, that the jump would be okay, I confidently climbed up the rocks and to the edge of the ledge. After one or two others plunged safely into the pool, I pushed off, and that’s when the real story starts. My back foot slipped slightly, resulting in less a push than I intended and consequently changing where in the pool I would enter, not in my favor. A slight panic started and I feared entering at too shallow a spot, resulting in either broken bones or worse, stuck feet first in the mud and drowning. But what I hadn’t thought through before jumping was how acceleration due to gravity really works, and I was jumping from a height at least twice as high than ever before. So while the first half of the plunge was consumed with the fear of the pool, the second half was consumed by how much faster I was heading towards planet Earth. Scary fast and getting increasingly faster as the milliseconds slowly crept past. Combine unfamiliar jumping with being off target and the exponentially increasing velocity, you can imagine that speed felt even faster than it probably was. My memory fails to recall, for sure, if I jumped again, but I think I did, since I think I mentioned there were girls involved. But much of the thrill, and the chills, are never as intense as they are the first time around. But I never attempted that kind of jump again after I survived that day. Stupid really shouldn’t be repeated too often.

Just recalling all the details behind these tails of speed makes the hair on my arms stand up, realizing that I’ve survived my share of foolish stunts. I hope I don’t make any more memories like these.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Best of 2017

Another great year of experiences, varying from the accomplishments of those I love, some travel memories, a couple big home improvements and a personal accomplishment I’m quite proud of.


10 . Elaine Retires (Mostly)

It’s great watching my wife all cuddled under the covers in the morning instead fitting in a morning run in the dark or joining the pre-work crowd in the weight room at the YMCA. It’s wonderful that she can stay up for a Sunday or Monday night football game instead of calling it quits at halftime, or in the case of her Steelers, crawling into bed past midnight. It’s fabulous that she no longer has to commute an hour, each way, up and down I-75. While having her company relocate to Kentucky was a few months before our preferred schedule, she’s been able to consult a few hours a week at home, on her hours and terms.


9. Laurie’s Masters in Information Systems Degree

My daughter completed her year-long trek at Wright State University’s online Masters in Information Systems (MIS) degree program, fitting that into her already busy work, home, husband, pets and running life. This dad enjoyed the hooding ceremony and hearing all the accolades she earned from the faculty and capstone project staff. Me bursting with pride puts her accomplishment on my top ten list.


8. Chicago Lake & River Tour

One of several different boat tours in Chicago, the Lake & River tour starts by taking you east toward Lake Michigan. But since the water level of the lake is a few feet higher than the river, you wait in line with other commercial and recreational boats for your turn to enter the lock. When your group is loaded in, the river-side gates behind close and the lake-side gates in front slowly open a foot or two, allowing the lake water to fill the lock, slowing lifting your vessel to the lake’s level. Then the lake-side gates fully open and you’re free to sail along the beautiful Chicago coastline. A return trip down the lock continues with a narrated tour of the Chicago River and the history of many of its iconic buildings.


7. Keeneland

On the way home from an enjoyable few days in Nashville, I got to experience my first live horse race, and a gorgeous day at Keeneland, complete with a box to ourselves. Not knowing the facility, we ended up parking, fortunately, in the wrong place and a nice gentleman directed us up a hill and through the paddocks to the track, providing us a “behind the scenes” tour. Since we were there on a Thursday, the place was not overly crowded and it was easy to move around, get a drink and place a bet. My first bet of the day, on the second race, was for a long shot to win. My horse was in the lead coming down the stretch and was caught in a photo finish, so close it took several minutes to determine who won. My horse finished second. My five other bets that day, of various kinds, resulted in my horse always finishing one place out of the money. But losing forty dollars was never this much fun.


6. Coco’s On The Beach

The end of August brought a six-day trip to Hilton Head Island to stay with our friends Dan and Grace. While the first couple days saw lots of rain due to a passing hurricane, the weather gradually improved and finding a beach bar was a must. Thanks to Google Maps, we saw that Coco’s On The Beach was about a mile north of the house. We jumped in the car, drove out to the main road and followed the smartphone directions into a small group of condos, but when “we arrived” we were left on one side of a high fence with Coco’s on the other side. However, it was closed, so we regrouped the next day. More Google searching taught us that we needed to go into the Hilton timeshare, pay $5 to park and that Coco’s would deduct that from our check. Back in the car and over to the Hilton, only to find Coco’s wasn’t open that day due to the weather. Back at the house, I walked the mile up the beach, determined to find Coco’s as I didn’t see it while running a few days prior. You can almost blink and miss the narrow opening, but I found it and the four of us walked up the beach the next day for lunch and a drink, and a powerful rum drink it was. While their tagline, “Finding us is half the fun!”, is no doubt true, it’s such a cool place that my only regret is only having one lunch there. Guess a return trip will be in order.


5. Steelers/Bears at Soldier Field

I’ve been to a few professional football games, normally parked high up in a corner or over the goal posts, but September’s trip to Chicago included tickets to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play the hometown Bears on a gorgeous sunny day. The group had two sets of tickets, so we watched one half from one set and then swapped. For the first half of the game we sat on the 50-yard line, about a dozen rows from the field. From that vantage point the game changes. The players are faster, bigger and you’re pulled into the action on a very personal level. You feel the collisions, the efforts of the player and how quickly one play leads to the next. It was almost a relief to watch the second half from a calmer viewpoint, but if you’re a fan, treat yourself some day and sit down low. Football will never feel the same again.


4. Jake’s Amish Furniture

When the kitchen was remodeled we had a wall shortened and the cabinet on that wall was now too wide and was showing its age. We looked for a suitable replacement but nothing was quite what we wanted. On the advice of our dentist, we traveled up to Amish country in central Ohio and visited Jake’s. We explained what we had in mind and over the course of two hours designed the perfect custom cabinet, just over six feet tall split into two sections by a pullout butler tray, three shelves above and two below. We selected ash for the wood and a dark stain for the finish, hoping it would match the kitchen table. It took about three months to be manufactured and then I picked it up using our Jeep Grand Cherokee, used lots of padding to avoid nicks and rope to hold down the hatch, the cabinet being, of course, about two inches too long. All the effort and waiting paid off and our heirloom cabinet looks gorgeous at the intersection of the living room, dining room and kitchen. And perfectly matches the kitchen table.


3. Dorothy Lane Market Cooking School

We took four cooking classes this year, Entertaining Dinner for Easter, Italian Al Fresco, Crazy for Tomatoes and Chicken Alfredo, all from Mary Cooney. These were roll-up-your-sleeves classes for a dozen or more couples and we ate the fruits of our labors. We picked up so many recipes and so many cooking tips that we continue to use. The food we made was absolutely delicious, so it felt like both a class and a 5-star dinner, two for the price of one. Plans are already in place to continue classes into the new year.


2. New Marble Bathroom

The final room of the house in need of a serious makeover was the second floor bathroom. We contracted with Jason Best who gutted everything, removed the iron bathtub and replaced it with a custom walk-in that seems to have doubled the shower size. We selected beautiful blue and gray marble tile and a matching medium blue paint. Much needed insulation was added, a ceiling vent installed and hot halogen lights replaced with cool LEDs. An elongated, and slighted taller, toilet, with a slow-close lid rounded out the major improvements. It is simply stunning.


1. 1,004 Miles Run

I’ve been a runner since I was 17 years old and have run enough miles over my years to make it around the world twice, but I haven’t run one thousand miles in a single year since 2006, and nowhere near that in recent years. But part of my retirement planning is to be in shape when I retire, figuring with all that time on my hands I need to be in shape to fully enjoy it. I started the year with a goal of 630 miles with a stretch goal of 800. After running 201 miles in the first three months, the stretch goal became the new goal, but after clocking in 420 miles halfway through the year, 1,000 miles started to creep in as a possibility, but that would take a serious step up in effort and consistency. 307 miles in the third quarter left me with 273 miles to a thousand. October was another hundred mile month, reducing the remainder to 173, but the time change in November eliminates most evening runs and dropped that month’s mileage to 82, leaving 91 for December. I committed myself, finding ways to get more runs in and finally, a 5 mile run on December 29th put me over one thousand and I closed the year with a New Year’s Eve run to finish with 1,004.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Then The Party Really Starts

Several times a year my wife and I travel to Pittsburgh to visit her family and friends. There is a rhythm to these visits and usually begins with a party the first night. Several hours of catching up on events in everyone's lives while each enjoys their favorite beverage, which in most cases is a popular American beer. The fun continues for hours and then around 10:30 to 11:00 pm, the crowd thins out.

And then the party really starts.

Always with this proclamation.

“I'm having my Capper”.

This sounds like just one more and then I'm going to bed. In reality it's a signal that the first of many will be popped open. I think at the time they really mean it, it's really their intention to be “one and done”. Just never works out that way. And I've learned that capper is actually plural. No 's’ is needed. Like moose.

A little while later, when the capper is gone, out comes the second phrase of the drinking dance.

“Would you like to share a Splitter?”.

This is intended to sound like things are really starting to slow down. They'll each just have half a can. Then they try to decide what they like in common, so they could actually share one. Back and forth a few times and no agreement is reached, which is not unexpected since they don't like the same thing in the first place. So they each decide to have a full one instead. Just not quite ready to call it quits.

Actually, far from it.

Then after that two, or more, beer introduction, all pretense is cast aside and the sound of pop tops popping becomes more frequent. I think it's like a second beer wind. And it's a brisk tailwind indeed.

While no more excuses are made, there are a few words that describe the action.

“Topper”

This is pouring just a little beer into the bottom of your glass, making it look like you're close to the finish line. I think it's more like serving small portions to children to get them to eat more. They can sneak up on their livers and it won't know what's coming.

“Slammer”

Somewhere along this real party timeline a beer will quickly disappear, or get slammed. Similar to eating quickly allows you to eat more, slamming a beer overcomes the stomach's desire to cut you off.

“Shooter”

Inevitably somebody has to suggest a shooter, perhaps a Little Beer, Little Guinness or some Irish Whiskey. This has to be well-timed, situated after the Capper and Splitter to gain everyone's agreement that it's a good idea, but before the later stages when they know the true end is near. Timing is everything.

“Sipper”

Usually occurring after the Shooter, people start taking little sips of beer, stretching out the evening that they're enjoying more than ever.

“Cougher”

My favorite, it’s a clever way of disguising that you’re opening yet another can of beer, perhaps a bit too quickly, so you synchronize a cough as you’re pulling the tab. Done well, and frankly this group has had a fair amount of practice, you can completely muffle the “tssst”.

“Hammer”

Part of what fuels the evening is having enough people that it's impossible for everyone to finish their beer at the same time. You've just finished yours and you notice someone else has just started another, so of course you open another one too. Not to would be considered rude. But the end has to come, so one or two people do the group one final favor and they hammer down their nearly full can. Bless them.

“Quitter” and “Goner”

Someone's going to be found sleeping on a coach, upright, during the latter stages of the party. If they've left beer in their can, it's a quitter. If they finished it, it was a goner, the one that took them down.

Finally, good nights are exchanged and the party is concluded.

When morning comes, it begins with an equally predictable proclamation.

“We're not doing that again tonight!”.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Rights and Mistakes

I don’t get all that caught up on words, at least not until I hear people use them improperly for their own gain or avoid blame. The two that drive me the craziest are “rights” and “mistakes”, and I’ll describe what I think they mean and why other people want so much to use them improperly.

To qualify as a “right”, in my book, means two things. First, we all can, equally, have the same right. Your right to them does not, in any way, impinge on me or anyone else having the same right. Free speech is a good example. We each can have it and use it without infringing on the other’s exercise of that right. Second, rights do not involve money. I don’t have to pay to have free speech and I’m not required to pay for yours. It’s really a specific case of rule number one, but since so many improper uses of “rights” involve money being taken away from one party and given, or used, to provide the “right” to another, I think it helps clarify my definition. In my definition, health care and education are not rights. They are arguably moral obligations, but that’s a big difference. With a right you don’t have to qualify and you don’t have to oblige anything back, it simply yours, pure and simple. It’s no wonder that proponents of any given “give-away” program want to qualify it as a “right” instead of a good idea or the proper thing to do. Furthermore, taking away someone’s rights is very serious business. Putting someone in jail or drafting them into the armed forces are examples of necessary situations that require suspending someone’s right of life, liberty or free speech. Check out our Bill of Rights and you will find rights like freedom of speech, religion, assembly, search and self-incrimination. These fit my definition of a right. I find knowing the difference between a right and those “false rights”, however well-intentioned, keeps my moral compass pointed to the truth.

Also commonly misused is “mistake”. We all make them all the time. Perhaps you meant to add sugar to your coffee and grabbed the salt instead. That’s a mistake in my book. Using salt was not your intention, you really meant to use sugar. Some mistakes like this are caused by lack of attention, some by being in too much of a hurry or trying to multi-task. Contrast that with a teenager who steals a pack of cigarettes and Mom says “oh, she just made a mistake”. Really, that was the mistake? Did she mean to steal some chewing gum and grabbed the wrong thing? More like “she didn’t think she would get caught” would be the truth about the mistake made. The stealing was a choice, but not a mistake. Most people learn right from wrong at a very early age, openly displaying what they know is right and hiding what they know is wrong. But “mistake” is used instead of “choice” because it avoids placing blame and declaring fault, and then dealing with the ensuing drama and conflict. It would be much more accurate to say “kids are going to make some bad choices”, acknowledging they have more to learn about life and how we treat each other instead of closing our eyes to reality.

It’s easy to understand why these powerful words, “rights” and “mistakes”, are used inappropriately, but I won’t fall for it. If we’re to face problems in our families, communities and nation, we have to deal with these difficult conversations truthfully and not hide behind the wrong words.



Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Balance Is Hard

Achieving a life “in balance”, with all those things you need and want flowing together in perfect proportion, would leave you feeling accomplished on all those things that matter to you the most. Yet it appears that many of us, and certainly for me at times, fail brilliantly at this, leaving us stressed, unhappy and feeling like a failure. Why is something so desirable, healthy and self-gratifying so difficult to get right? I have some opinions on that and some suggestions that may help.

Balance is not one-size-fits-all but the exact opposite, a unique blend, custom fit for you, your desires and situation. But have you defined your “balance”, or just hoping that life will deliver it as the result of all the choices, good and bad, you make throughout the day? As they say, “a failure to plan is a plan to fail”. Like writing this article, you have to decide what goes in and what gets left out, and the left out part is really tough to figure out. Balance would be easy if there were unlimited minutes in your day or you had just enough activities. The first certainly isn’t true and rarely is the second. You need to come up with your desired end-state and compare that with where you are today. Figure out what to give up, what to add and the steps needed to get there. I doubt that’s straight line and pretty sure you will revisit your choices early and often. Balance doesn’t mean finding one blend and sticking to it forever. Shaking up your balance every so often is necessary to keeping it in balance. At least it is for me.

There are a number of “positive” reasons for getting out of balance. We like being “givers”, unselfishly donating our time to others in pursuit of their activities. It gives us pleasure to say “yes” and that’s really easy to do if it’s a future event and not an immediate request. We’re passionate about our causes, our faith and our families. Smiles and thank you’s are wonderful outcomes and we like to think we gave it our all. We like being busy, but busy and balance are very different things. Being a Type A, I like being busy, and feeling accomplished as a result, most of the time. But balance for me is being busy on the right things in the right proportion over the right time frame. As a friend of mine quite accurately stated, “When we work, we work hard and when we play, we play hard. And when we stop, we fall asleep”. Sums up my balance plan very well.

Then there are the “negatives” that drag us into a doom loop to imbalance. Thinking we have to explain and justify each decision, defend why you said “No” to this and “Yes” to that and listening to the whining and complaining and “That’s not fair!” that ensues. It’s easy in the short term to say “Yes” to everyone, avoid the arguments and give ourselves fully to other’s demands and desires. And this just adds fuel the next round, knowing you will give in with enough “persuasion”. Our own passions also get in our way, wanting only the best for our children, wanting to be more successful at work or seen as the pillar of faith at our place of worship. I’m certainly the type that can “be my own worst enemy”, always looking at how to do something better or quicker. Taming the internal beast, saying “No” to yourself is every bit as difficult as telling others the same thing.

My advice starts with another saying I’ve carried for years, “Everything in moderation, including moderation”. Life, and balance, isn't always about a little of this and a little of that, but I include those things that take too much time and effort, but only once in awhile. If you equate balance with boredom, you’re still out of balance. Indulge at times or give a project your all, then work back to towards your target. Balance is more a long term goal than a daily quest. Balance is fluid, changes with the seasons and with your mood. Take a break, start a new hobby, give up an old one, shake things up, then settle things down.

“No is a complete sentence”.  It truly really is, and it’s advice you should learn well. You do not have to give reasons, you don’t have to negotiate and you don’t have to even talk about it. Use it sparingly, but use it when the “persuasion” mounts and you’ve already made your decision. Let them whine, just tell them to do it elsewhere. Like the freedom of speech, you have the freedom not to listen.

My final advice is to have a to-do list that never gets completed, but just gets added to, crossed off, rewritten and prioritized over and over. Get used to not getting it all done because there’s always something that needs done. But getting the right things done in the time available will reduce stress and eliminate the feeling that everything on the list is equally important and that it doesn’t matter what gets done. If an item stays on the list too long, cross it off. New items don’t have to go on the bottom, it just might be the new number one . Don’t make your to-do list into a wishlist, keep those separate. Keep a bucket list for the big wishes. I have so many lists, I should probably have a list of lists. But that’s just me.

I hope one or two of these can help you on your journey to balance, if that’s indeed your destination, as it is mine.






Saturday, July 1, 2017

My Retirement Resume

Am I qualified to retire? Do I have what it takes?

I’ll reflect here as retirement being the next job I desire to obtain and give it a job description, that list of required and desired qualifications that the perfect candidate would possess to be successful, and that stack that up against an honest self-assessment.

The most obvious qualification, and maybe the hardest one to quantify, is having the financial resources, since this new job doesn’t pay anything, sort of like being a full-time volunteer. For most people, retirement will bring a reduced monthly paycheck delivered by some combination of pensions, 401(k), IRA, investments, savings and Social Security. So the real question here is not how much is available, but can you change your spending habits to match. It’s a real boost if you don’t have a house payment or other large loans, or have children “still on the payroll”, but ultimately the question, and hence the qualification, becomes can you balance your spending with your resources without draining them too quickly.

I believe I’ll be qualified financially in the very near future. Frankly, I’ve lived at times in my life, quite happily in fact, on far less than I’ll have in retirement. I can dial it back as needed and expect to have more time to look for opportunities to save on monthly expenses. But honestly, short of working until I die, this is really a matter of timing and delaying retirement until I have no choice or having a little more to spend just isn’t worth the benefits of this new job, like sleeping in and slowing down. And naps. Really looking forward to naps.

A big qualification for this retirement job, and one that holds many people back, is filling your days. The average paying job requires a minimum of 40 hours of actual work time in a week, but adding in waking up, showering, shaving, getting dressed, commuting to and commuting from an office stretches that 8 hours per day into 11-12 hours. Add at least an hour to prepare, eat and cleanup after dinner, plus 8 hours of sleep and the average time to fill with other activities during a work day is about 2 hours. That’s not nearly enough, so lots of chores get moved to the weekend to fill that time up. Do you have, or can you expect to build, enough interesting and fulfilling things to do on a daily basis to prevent you from giving up your self-directed retirement in favor of a boss that will tell you what to do with your time?

I believe I’m qualified to fill my days. I will spend quite a bit of it outdoors, continuing my lifelong running and walking habits, playing golf, skiing and exploring. In looking back at my childhood, when I also had looks of time to fill, I was an avid reader and look forward to returning to that. I have lots of movies to watch I’ve never seen before. I have lots of blogs to write, TED videos to watch, a love of cooking that feeds my love of eating and little house improvement projects. I’m also fortunate that my paying job for the last 40+ years has been in computing, and unlike an accounting or management career, I can continue to dabble in tech. I might even build that “one remote control to rule all devices” I promised my wife ten years ago. But most of all I believe I can dial back my type A personality and just slow down my pace.

Any applicant desiring this coveted retirement position should have the qualification of being in good health. Sitting at a desk all day long gets replaced with lots of activities, and good physical fitness entering retirement will improve both the financial aspects and filling the days. Waiting for retirement to begin that process is like saying you’ll quit cigarettes next week. Can you really expect to reverse a life of coach-potatoing and bad habits when you start in your sixties?

I’m certainly qualified health-wise. I’m on pace to run over 800 miles this year and since the age of seventeen have run nearly 40,000 miles. I take no medications and my heart rate and blood pressure are stellar. I have a few pounds I’d like to lose and retirement will give me more opportunities to exercise, especially walking and golfing.

I have no doubt retirement will be a great and fulfilling job, that I’m well-qualified and that I’m up for the challenge. I’ve been preparing a long time and the closer it gets, the more excited I become. Please hire me!